Presence and Engagement

A guest blog from Rev Chris Knights who is the Church and Community Development Worker for the Musselburgh Parish Grouping, Church of Scotland.

A few years ago, when I was in the West End of Newcastle upon Tyne working as a Parish Priest in an Inner Urban Area and as the Urban Regeneration Officer for my local Deanery, the Church of England produced a report called ‘Presence and Engagement.’ This was a report about Inter-faith relationships and is a title the Church of England has retained for its work people from non-Christian faith communities. However, I have always thought that ‘Presence and Engagement’ is equally well suited as a title for Christian community ministry, outreach and mission.

Between 2004-2011 I was the Urban Regeneration Officer in the west end of Newcastle and my work there was all about being explicitly present in the ‘secular’ life of the world and engaged with that life, seeking to offer a Christian presence and engagement that showed that the Church was interested in and concerned about what was going on in the world in the effect it had on local people, for good or for bad.

I am now, once again carrying out a ‘world-focussed’ Christian ministry. This time I am Church and Community Development Worker for the Church of Scotland in Musselburgh (the first town east of Edinburgh). Since moving here I have once again become convinced that presence and engagement is crucial to community ministry. I have to seek to be present in contexts in the town of Musselburgh where the Church has not traditionally been seen, at least not explicitly or very obviously. This means engaging with charities, community groups, community councils and so on. Often this will involve being present in places and with people for a long time before trust is fully established and we are able to contribute to the conversation. However, while being present is the vital first step, presence is only part of the story.

We have to be able to ‘engage’ with what is going on as well. We need to draw from the words to the exiles in Jeremiah 29.7 and ‘seek the peace and prosperity’ of the people and places we are amongst. For me in Scotland, this has meant securing the nomination of the Council of Churches as a community representative on the Musselburgh area partnership. By asking the partnership how our church could serve our community we were able to help a local charity for the homeless to provide ‘starter packs’ for their service users, who were going into unfurnished tenancies. The church has now managed to create its first such ‘starter pack’ and deliver it to the charity. This was immediately put to use for a service user they had just placed into a tenancy of her own and was in need of basic crockery, cutlery, bedding etc.

This sort of presence and engagement isn’t often explicitly evangelistic, but it reconnects the Church with its local community in obvious ways, which demonstrate that we care for the welfare of those who live around us and are concerned about what concerns them. It shows that we are actively engaged in improving the quality of life for those living in the community.

This is surely a part of what local mission is all about, it falls into the ‘Marks of Mission’ in that it is ‘caring for the poor and needy by acts of loving service’ and ‘seeking to transform the unjust structures of society.’ It seems to me that it is only as we show we are committed to being present in and engaged with the life of our local communities that we will get the opportunity to talk more explicitly about our faith in Jesus Christ.


So, as a practical outworking of presence and engagement, here are a few routes you can take:

  • Contribute to the discussion in the local strategic partnership or (in Scotland) the community planning partnership, either as a faith representative or as a rep from the broader third sector. For me this has been being on the Musselburgh Area Partnership, and in Newcastle I was on the strategic board of the Newcastle Partnership.
  • As a church ask a local charity how you can help and support them. Here this was providing our first ‘starter pack’.
  • Become a member of committee for a local Community Association.

Each of these ideas offer a chance to demonstrate the church is relevant to the community through both its presence and its engagement in community activity and life.

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Super-heroes or Saints? Creative tension part 4

Continuing his guest series on creative tension in community mission, Andy Wier questions the value of promoting a hero culture.

“I think I might have come with a bit of a messiah complex.”

I was talking with a young man who had moved to an inner city neighbourhood because that’s where he felt God was calling him to be.  Towards the end of our conversation, I asked him how he had been changed by the experience of living on a socially disadvantaged estate. There was a 20 second pause. And then he told me he’d begun to realise that he’d come in with “a bit of a messiah complex”.  As he went on to explain, this involved thinking: “I’m going to come and see all this change, its going to be amazing. And it’s going to be like a machine approach – we’re just going to get on with it and its going to be quick.”

What he shared made a deep impression on me for two reasons. Firstly, I was impressed by his self-awareness and honesty. And secondly, in the ‘messiah complex’ he was describing, I recognised something of my younger self. As I’ve said previously in this series, I’d moved onto an inner city estate in my early twenties for similar reasons to this young man. And looking back, I can see that I moved with similar expectations of playing a central part in bringing about spectacular and dramatic change. To say that I had a messiah complex might be an exaggeration. But I think I probably saw myself as a bit of a super-hero!

All this has got me thinking about the ways in which Christian subculture encourages us to think like heroes or super-heroes. Each one of us, we’re told, has a personal mission from God and we’re repeatedly encouraged to recount tales of dramatic transformation that we’ve helped bring about. Yes of course, we acknowledge that Jesus is the ultimate superhero and that it’s really ‘all about him’. But, if truth be told, many of us aspire to being Jesus’ special sidekick and getting to share at least some of the limelight.

It’s important to realise, however, that Christians are never called ‘heroes’ in the Bible. Instead, they’re called ‘saints’ in sixty-four different New Testament passages. And as Sam Wells (p.35) explains, there are some really important differences between stories about heroes and stories about saints. A hero is always at the centre of the story. When things are looking like they could go badly wrong, it is the hero who steps up and makes everything turn out right. A saint, in contrast, is always at the periphery of a story that is really about God. They are not necessarily a crucial character and may be almost invisible, easily missed, quickly forgotten.

In community mission circles, I’ve encountered lots of talk about being community heroes, urban heroes, or heroes of the inner city. I get where this is coming from and I see some value in it. But how can we ensure that an emphasis on being extra-ordinary doesn’t create or perpetuate a ‘messiah complex’? Is the promotion of a hero culture in our churches consistent with the call to ‘fix our eyes on Jesus’ (Hebrews 12:2)?

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So much more than a building – the importance of Christian presence

 Ruth Smith concludes her blog series about a declining church – and the need for new thinking and new ways.
A church building with a for sale sign

I recently had an interesting exchange which reminded me how easily language and how we use it can cause confusion and disagreement. How careful we need to be when trying to introduce new thinking and new ways to those we want to convince. During this conversation I raised my concerns about the drift towards closing churches in Durham’s urban villages. I wanted to challenge whatever rationale lies behind it and suggest a different approach to the issue of ‘unviable’ churches in poor areas.

Immediately the defensive hackles went up: the person I was talking with began to explain how some churches needed to be closed as they cost too much to maintain and are a drain on limited resources. I quickly realised what I had done, and interrupted. Yes, I agreed, some church buildings – probably more than we dare admit – should be closed, and quickly. But to clarify, what I meant when I used the word ‘church’ was ‘congregation.’ In buildings, in the way the word was originally used in the New Testament.

More precisely, what I mean by church in these places where there is often just a small number of people gathering to worship and somehow keep their church afloat, is community. My argument is that if we begin honestly to see church as community rather than building, there is no reason why it ever should become unviable.

Of course there is a lot of work to do to get there. We all get attached to our ‘places’ be that our homes, schools, holiday retreats… churches. They give us amongst many other things a sense being secure and settled. We are comfortable. We belong. There seems to be something in our psyche that yearns for these things and once we have them we are loath to let them go.

With churches it becomes more complicated still. We are taught that our church is ‘the house of God’ and we go there to worship Him and meet with his people, our church family. Over the years we invest a huge amount of ourselves there: not only our money but our time, our energies, our gifts and talents. If we have a churchyard we may have relatives and friends buried there. Certainly others do: they are special places always to be respected and conserved. These are sacred places, consecrated ground.

On top of that, many of our churches are old and historic. They have heritage value and are often put on the listed buildings register. Maintaining them becomes even more urgent – and expensive. We become subject to an ever-widening range of rules and regulations.

More and more it feels like ‘our church’ is out of our control.

And yet understandably many of us don’t want to let go, even when things get so bad there is no alternative. The few who may be willing are aware it’s not that easy. If our church closes down, what then? Where would we go for our services? Where would we do church? What will become of us?

One of the most stressful events we experience is moving house. However exciting it may be, it’s hard work, from deciding it’s time to move (or being told we have to) to finding and acquiring a new place, arranging the removals, packing, then moving and unpacking at the other end. There’s more to it than that, though, especially when we move to another area. We leave behind our friends, maybe our family, our street and neighbourhood and everything that is familiar to us. We lose, if you like, our community. We go through a kind of bereavement process: adjusting and settling is seldom straightforward. We may question whether we’ve done the right thing. If our new neighbours and colleagues and church are welcoming it helps. But it takes time to begin to feel we belong once again.

It’s no different when we move church, especially when we are feel we are given no choice. When churches close there is a presumption that their members will start worshipping at another. Sometimes there are suggestions as to where they should go, usually to a neighbouring church so they don’t have to travel too far. But if you are dependent on public transport, as many people are, getting there is problematic, especially on a Sunday and in the evenings. And however close they are geographically, these other churches are not just ‘other churches’: they are other communities, with different schools, different shops, health centres, public services and amenities. People have different neighbours to you.

Of course being connected to neighbouring communities can be a positive thing. It’s good to know that as Christians we belong to a wider Church then just our own. But the wider church is not our primary faith community. The proposed church may have a different tradition to the one you’re familiar with. It does things differently. It isn’t ‘home.’ Both community and church are places where there has previously been little real connection.

Why should it be expected that you should go there and be content?

I wonder how many people in this predicament choose not to make the effort to go to an unfamiliar church in a neighbouring but alien community. I suspect more than we would think. They lose their church and the Church loses them. Equally distressing is that their community loses its church: and I don’t just mean its church building. There ceases to be in this urban village, social housing estate or inner city, any visible, tangible, identifiable Christian community. Once that presence becomes absence, how is it ever to be revived?

The Church of England is historically committed to have A Christian Presence in Every Community. It’s open to debate as to whether or not that is a realistic aspiration in the 21st century. My belief is that it becomes more achievable if we define what we mean by ‘church’ more clearly and begin to shift our perspective from identifying church as building to church as people.

A change in our use of language would go a long way to help us towards new thinking and new ways. Using the word ‘congregation’ is one step we could take: congregations are made of humans, not stones or bricks. Even better, especially in difficult areas where churches are struggling and congregations hardly exist, introducing the term, the concept and then the practice of ‘Christian presence’ would begin to open up new possibilities for Christians who find themselves in the cul-de-sac of ‘unviability’ facing closure and redundancy.

None of this is easy. There still needs to be a time of supported transition and adjustment as people lose their buildings and so much that is dear to them. But I suspect that they would be far happier to move into a new ways of understanding what church really is, and new ways of being church in their own familiar places and within their own communities.

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Holistic Mission (Creative Tension part 3)

Continuing his guest series on creative tension, Andy Wier encourages us to look beyond the slogans and strap-lines of ‘holistic mission’.

Over the years, I’ve encountered lots of talk about churches being holistic in community mission. “Do More, Do it Together, Do it in Word and Deed” – that was the original strap-line of Hope 08 (now Hope 2014).  “Sharing faith through words and actions” – that’s part of the mission of Church Army, with whom I’ve just started a new job.

There’s all manner of strap-lines and slogans we can use to talk about being holistic. But in practice, being holistic is easier said than done.

This was one of the main findings of my recent research on the way charismatic-evangelical churches engage in urban mission. The churches I studied all experienced some kind of tension between “the spiritual-evangelistic” and “the socio-economic”. The quotes below highlight three different dimensions to this:

1. Personal tension – individual Christians feeling torn: 

“We’ve had meals together, we’ve gone on trips, and we’ve helped them with their CVs… All of that’s really important but it’s not the ultimate… For them to be totally transformed they need Jesus in their life.”

(Rowena, Youth Worker)

 2. Group dynamics – Tensions within a group of Christians:

“For some people, I think the aim is very much to convert Muslims – they’re saying that to know Jesus is what we want the women to experience. For other people, the kingdom values are to go and welcome the stranger and whether or not that results in an actual conversion no longer matters so much… That can sometimes set up a tension in the group”.

(Caroline, Leader of a Conversation Club for Refugee Women)

3. External tensions – difficulties relating to secular organisations and funding bodies:

“The more blatantly evangelistic you come across, the less well-received you are”

(Nathan, Church leader)

‘Kingdom Christians’ and ‘Cross Christians’

The wider backdrop to all this is that over the years Christians have spent vast amounts of energy debating (and sometimes arguing about) the relationship between evangelism and social action. And despite all the holistic rhetoric, this issue continues to be a source of tension in the contemporary Church. As Tom Wright puts it, the Church is often divided between ‘Kingdom Christians’ with a social action agenda and ‘Cross Christians’ with a saving-souls-for-heaven agenda.  Or as the following graphic from Jon Kuhrt illustrates, different church traditions sometimes appear to have completely different understandings of ‘the gospel’.

John Kurt thing

As with some of the other tensions we’ve looked at in this series, I’d suggest that many of us have a tendency to lean one way or the other.

At times in my Christian journey, I’ve found myself emphasising the need for personal conversion and transformation through encounter with Jesus (the blue part of the diagram) while at other times I’ve been particularly drawn to a biblically inspired vision of social justice (the orange).

What about you? Which way do you lean? In your understanding of the gospel, do you veer more towards the orange or the blue?

I think it’s both inevitable and healthy that different Christians find themselves drawn to different dimensions of the gospel. But within this, we also need to be continually reminding ourselves of the bigger picture. The biblical vision of salvation encompasses both Kingdom and Cross, social justice and personal conversion. So as Jon Kuhrt argues:

“Instead of seeing the range of emphasises on key theological issues as opposing each other we need to understand them as a dialectic that is in-built into the Christian faith – that truth always involves holding contrasting factors in tension.”

Where’s my blind-spot?

Over time, I’ve come to appreciate that perspectives from Christian traditions that are different to our own can be really helpful in making us more aware of our theological blind-spots. And nowhere is this more important than in discussions about the relationship between social action and evangelism. Here I’d suggest that perspectives from the orange and the blue can provide much-needed correctives to each other.

As Stephen Cox observes, there’s a “coyness in speaking about Jesus” within some Christian social action circles.  In this sense, I think that churches which veer towards the orange part of Jon Kuhrt’s diagram need to listen to and engage with Christians who emphasise evangelism.

On the other hand, there’s been a general lack of attention among many ‘Bible believing’ Christians to the parts of the Bible that talk about poverty and social justice. Here, I suggest that ‘blue’ churches which tend to emphasise personal conversion have much to learn from Christian traditions that emphasise ‘the orange’.

If the mission of our churches is to become more genuinely holistic, we need to become more aware of our own blind-spots.

Where’s my blind-spot? Where’s yours?

Andy Wier, February 2014

Andy Wier is a researcher and consultant with a Doctorate in Practical Theology from the University of Chester. He works part-time for Church Army as Research, Review and Training Officer and part-time as a consultant to churches, charities and community organisations.

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New Thinking and New Ways

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow…”  Part 2 of Ruth Smith’s series

Many modern day Christians will not know that this phrase, which I also used in my last blog, was taken from the old hymn Great is thy Faithfulness.

Written in 1923 by one Thomas Chisholm it was based on the Old Testament Scripture:

Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not.They are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, ‘Therefore I hope in Him!”

Lamentations 3:22-24

Chisholm’s is an interesting story of an ordinary man who struggled over many years with ill health. It affected his employment and livelihood, making him unable to pursue his vocation as a church minister and confining him to an office job with an insurance company. Amazingly despite his poor health he lived until he was 96! Towards the end of his life, he is recorded as saying:

 My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me on until now, although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.

This has left me wondering how many congregations in Durham’s urban villages are able to share Chisholm’s joyful gratitude? I’m sure there are many who on a personal level are aware of God’s great faithfulness and love for them, and turn to him for strength to help them through each day, especially in the difficult times. Difficulties are many for people living in these communities and often, I suspect, they have felt ‘consumed’ – life is a struggle when you don’t have much.

Church people in these villages face the ordinary trials of life, in addition they face the unrelenting struggle of trying to keep their churches open, trying hard to meet the constant demands of money and maintenance. They have witnessed over recent decades the gradual diminishment of church membership, by this I don’t just mean the drastic fall in church attendance. Many of these congregations are elderly and coping with the task of simply getting older: poorer health, less income, lower energy levels and capacity to do what they used to do (and might still want to do but can’t), the deaths of friends and family bringing nearer the reality  of their own mortality.

Over the years they’ve seen great change: now the values that are important to them count less, and matters of church and faith have shifted to the margins. Even their children and grandchildren have opted out. To top it all they have had their vicar taken away. For some, I have no doubt that the final straw falls when their church becomes ‘unviable’ and is threatened with closure. Their church (or chapel) as well as their village has been abandoned.

I find myself wondering: how many of these congregations, in the face of such overwhelming (consuming) challenges, begin to question the faithfulness of God? There is little strength for today, and hope for tomorrow has faded, or been taken away.

The other side of life in these churches has been equally disturbing, I have often been astounded and dismayed when churchgoers seem to understand little about the Gospel and have no interest in sharing God’s love with each other, never mind their community. I have been at a loss more than a few times to understand what it is some congregations have been taught – or not – down the many years of their church going. I have worked with congregations who have had enough of change and not only resist more but absolutely refuse it, even when their survival depends on it. And sadly there have been those ‘washing your hands’ times when you realise you’re wasting your time and have to let go and move on.

This is not the universal truth as I have also journeyed with congregations who have been devastated by the loss of former things and slow to accept new thinking and new ways, but they have worked through it and survived. A few have even thrived and now acknowledge that after all it was worth the pain.

The point is new thinking and new ways are things that few of us, if we are entirely honest transition into easily. Letting go of the old to make way for the new is painful – we can feel threatened, undermined, overwhelmed – consumed – especially when it seems that everything foundational and familiar is being lost. What makes it worse, though, is when we feel powerless to do anything about it, when control is taken out of our hands and any influence we hoped we might have is denied.

This is part of life for many in the urban villages and other marginalised communities. They are so used to no one listening that they have stopped communicating. They are so tired of struggling that they have given up the fight. They are so used to being ‘done to’ that they take it for granted. So, to introduce ‘new thinking and new ways’ which encourage self determination, aspiration and hope – well, that is a challenge to be reckoned with.

However, those in the congregation who are used to being done to, are not the only ones in need of change. There is the even harder task, I think ironically, to introduce new thinking and new ways to those who are failing to listen but have the role of ‘doing to’ – in other words, the power holders. Sadly some of these are church leaders who decide the ‘viability’ issue and choose which churches close and which do not. There is ostensibly always a consultation period, but what appears to be happening more and more is the churches in the poorer communities – the urban villages, the housing estates, the inner cities – are closing, whilst those in other areas  survive.

It’s a disturbing trend which urgently needs to be reversed. What we desperately need are new thinking and new ways – and a new willingness from everyone to do things differently.

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Happiness Leaders day

Happy CourseBeing happy can half your risk of heart disease. Happy people are more likely to get married, and for those marriages to last. Happy people are more creative and more productive. Happiness is much more than a passing feeling – it has an impact on health, relationships, career and the community as a whole. That’s why Livability is developing tools to help people find happiness.

Livability’s Happiness Course saw an exciting development in November. Twenty six church workers and community leaders spent a day with Livability, learning how to run the course in their neighbourhoods. They came from gritty Kings Cross and leafy Sussex, urban Manchester and rural Devon. It’s encouraging that people from such contrasting places all see happiness as an important issue for their neighbours.

And as Livability trains people to run The Happiness Course, it means that our impact is multiplied. More people are learning tools and resources to live a happier life  – which makes us happy!

If you would like to run The Happiness Course in your neighbourhood, we’ll be running two more courses in the spring – one in Liverpool and another in London.

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Is Community Mission all about being Incarnational? Creative Tension Part 2

As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth this Christmas, guest blogger Andy Wier offers some reflections on incarnational mission.

“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood”
(John 1:14, The Message)

Over the past fifteen years, “incarnational mission” has become a buzzword in many of the church circles I’ve inhabited. Inspired by the story of the Word who became flesh, quite a few UK Christians have sought to emulate Jesus’ downward mobility by intentionally relocating to deprived urban areas. Whether through national initiatives like Eden, the church-planting strategies of congregations or the personal convictions of individuals, the incarnation has been a major motivation for Christians moving into the neighbourhood.

I myself have been part of this movement. When I was in my early twenties, I moved onto an inner city estate with a couple of friends because I was attracted by the idea of incarnational mission. Thirteen years later, I still live in the same area and have come to regard it as home. But over time, my perspective on ‘being incarnational’ has changed.

As a white middle-class southerner living in a diverse and rapidly-changing northern neighbourhood, I’ve found trying to be incarnational quite hard. Although I’m committed to my local area, I find that there’s all manner of things that draw my attention away from the immediately local: the type of work I do; having family and friends scattered around the country; and being part of a church where not everyone lives in the same area.

At times, I’ve felt guilty about this and told myself I must try harder to be ‘more incarnational’. But more recently, I’ve begun to think that it might be ok to live with ambiguity and tension. One of the things that have helped with this has been the experience of conducting a study on the way charismatic-evangelical churches engage in urban mission.

My research identified a series of six tensions that charismatic-evangelical urban churches experience. One of these was a tension between “locally indigenous and expansive horizons”. The churches I studied all tried to combine a commitment to their immediate locality with a wider field of vision that extended to other parts of their city and beyond. This was also linked to a tension between ‘middle class incomers’ and ‘indigenous locals’.

As I’ve reflected on these tensions, I’ve come to the conclusion that although Christ’s incarnation can provide a really inspiring starting point for urban mission, a ‘tunnel vision’ emphasis on ‘being incarnational’ can be really unhelpful at times. A focus on Christ’s incarnation quite rightly affirms the importance of being contextual and locally indigenous. But there are other parts of the Christian narrative that encourage us to look far beyond the immediately local. For me, this is encapsulated by the words of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”
(Acts 1:8, NIV)

So as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth this Christmas, let’s remember that the incarnation isn’t the end of story. It’s only the very beginning.

And let’s remember that the incarnation isn’t fundamentally about a principle. It’s about a person.

How can we hold incarnational insights and expansive horizons together in creative tension?

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Collaborative or Counter-Cultural? – Creative Tension part 1

Continuing his guest series on creative tension, Andy Wier encourages us to look beyond our ‘default setting’.

As local churches, how should we relate to other organisations in our community like the Council, Police and secular voluntary sector providers? Should we be actively partnering with them wherever possible? Or should we be maintaining a critical distance and modelling something different?

I’ve wrestled with these questions over the fifteen years I’ve worked in the community regeneration sector and been part of an inner city church. I’ve not been able to arrive at a definitive answer but over the past couple of years, I’ve found the experience of studying different churches helpful in giving me some fresh perspective.

I recently spent nine months observing an independent charismatic church based on an outer urban housing estate. There I attended Sunday services, joined a house group and observed various community outreach projects. Having spent most of my life worshipping with Anglican churches of various kinds, I found this a fascinating experience. One of the things that most intrigued me was the way church members talked about ‘the World’.

Many of the sermons, songs and conversations I heard painted a picture of the world as a dark place. This appeared to make the church wary of working too closely with secular organisations. It sought instead to model a counter-cultural alternative to the world. Occasionally, however, I caught glimpses of a more positive view of the world. At one house group meeting, for example, I was struck by what one church member prayed for the non-Christian people involved in a local community association. He kept repeating the phrase “they’re good people… they’re good people”, before going on to ask God to bless them.

Collaborative versus Counter-cultural
This story illustrates a tension between counter-cultural and collaborative tendencies that I’ve observed within lots of different churches I’ve studied and worked with. In my experience, most churches have a tendency to lean one way or another. Some churches like the independent church I studied mainly emphasise the world’s sinfulness and the need for the Church to be counter-cultural. Other churches adopt a far more collaborative approach and are very keen to find common group with secular organisations and people of other faiths. They do this because all humans are made in God’s image and God’s purposes are not restricted to the Church.

Living with tension?
I think each approach has strengths and limitations. But within many of the Church networks I’ve been involved with, I’ve found that only one or the other is emphasised. In some urban mission circles, there’s a dominant focus on collaboration with secular partners while in others there’s a far greater focus on counter-cultural distinctiveness. On one level, it’s really good to allow a diversity of approaches. But all too easily it can lead us to operating in self-enclosed bubbles, tribes and camps. Rather than living with tension, we surround ourselves with Christians who agree with us. We fail to engage with those who take a different approach.

So what?
So how should our churches relate to other organisations in our community? Should we be collaborative or counter-cultural? The short answer is I think we need to be both. But in practice, it’s incredibly difficult to do this within a single congregation or project. For this reason, I think it’s really important to remember that we’re part of a wider Church – and to take time to engage with Christians who take a different approach from us.

By way of practical response, I’d suggest two simple steps:

1. Identify your default setting!
Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which way do you lean? Do you see the goodness in the world and want to collaborate with people who aren’t Christians? Or do you see the world’s fallenness / need for salvation and veer towards the counter-cultural?
  • Why do you take this approach? Is this because of your previous experiences, personality or reading of the Bible?
  • What do you see as the strengths and limitations of your default setting?

2. Get to know someone who takes the opposite approach!

  • Think of a Christian, church or project you’ve heard of that seems to take the opposite approach to your ‘default setting’. And then try to get to know them.
  • If you tend to be more collaborative, try to find someone who might be more counter-cultural. What might you be able to learn from them about maintaining a strong Christian distinctiveness while working in partnership with others?
  • If you prefer to be counter-cultural, try to find someone with a more collaborative approach. What might they have to teach you about joining in with what God’s already doing in the world?

Andy Wier, November 2013

Andy Wier is a freelance researcher, consultant and practical theologian. He works with churches, charities and community organisations and has recently completed a Doctorate in Practical Theology.

Further reading

  • For an example of a primarily collaborative approach, see John Atherton (2000) Public Theology for Changing Times
  • For an example of a more counter-cultural approach, see Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (1996) Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony
  • For examples of creative approaches to living with tension, see Malcolm Brown (2010) Tensions in Christian Ethics: An Introduction and Jon Kuhrt (2009) Resisting Tribal Theology and Going Deeper Together


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Urban Villages – Radical Church part 1

This is a post written by Ruth Smith, one of our Community Mission Advisors, after her work in the Diocese of Durham and experience of urban villages. This is the first in a three part blog series looking at what it means to be radical church.

Poverty in the North EastWalking through London recently I noticed a sign on a construction site inviting me to come and view this attractive Urban Village. I’ve seen these before, in Leeds and other cities, often outside modern apartment blocks that I know are hard to let and expensive to rent. I smiled wryly to myself… better that than laugh out loud with derision. “If you want to see an authentic urban village,” I was thinking, “come with me to the north east and I’ll show you a few.”

Working in the Durham Diocese in recent months has been a privilege and a joy for me. I was there to introduce churches to the idea of community engagement as an effective way of doing mission, especially in challenging social situations, to begin to support them in thinking through what that might mean for them. The response was encouraging, to say the least: everyone I spoke to could see why this approach might hold the key to change in their churches and communities. They just need support to make a start in their own places, and encouragement through the inevitable challenges and disappointments.

It is there in the north east that I have begun to see and understand the reality of the true ‘urban village’ – of which there are many scattered across the county. They have their own local economies, services and activities. They have characteristic housing stock and distinctive social structures and often still their indigenous populations. They are separated from the main centres of commerce, employment and activity and surrounded by lovely countryside. They are proper villages; yet they display all the characteristics of urban poverty, with little regenerative investment in housing stock, very few local employment opportunities, poor transport links, neglected parks and recreation, and often struggling schools. It’s hard to build community or grow aspiration. Not only are they separated, they are separated off: isolated, marginalised and worst of all, it seems, abandoned.

Don’t misunderstand me: in common with many urban estates and inner cities these villages have wonderful people – including clergy and the churches – working hard to bring new life into these neighbourhoods and communities, but they work against the odds. They have minimal (and shrinking) financial resource, a lack of social capacity locally and, frankly, just too much to do. Add to that a history which has nurtured negative attitudes, isolationism, poverty and hopelessness… and you begin to see why an invitation to view a City Urban Village brings a sardonic smirk to my face.

I’m painting the worst of scenarios here. Of course every village has its good side, and every community has its own happy narrative as well as its problems. Some of the Durham villages have successfully survived the decimation of their industries and livelihoods. Some have become thriving new communities. It’s important to find and tell the good stories to counteract the impact of the bad. But the bad still remains and unless we make that clear there will continue to be little hope and a bleak future. We have to keep on looking for, praying for, working for, campaigning for ways to redeem and renew and regenerate these communities. Redeem, renew, regenerate – all words rooted in the Christian way. That’s why the work we do as church is so important. If anyone carries a banner of “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow” we do.


The concept of ‘urban village’ within a city context is a fairly new phenomenon, emerging in the early 1990’s as a way of tackling perceived urban problems. The concept isn’t fixed or static: each ‘urban village’ is different in size, shape and design. However there are some key underlying principles: variety of population and mixed residential, community and business use, harmony of architecture and environment, neighbourliness and sustainability. It sounds great, just like the village we would all like to live in – the one that we hold a romantic notion of, drawn from handed down images of days gone by, or from our wonderful holidays in the countryside. However the jury is still out as to how effective city urban villages will be, and whether they will indeed be regenerated places where people can work and live in happily.


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Creative tension

This week we have a new guest blogger, who is going to be writing a series of blogs for us following on from his doctoral research into tensions that charismatic evangelical churches face in their community mission. This post is an introduction to this series and Andy Weirwill give a good idea of what is to come.

Andy Wier is a freelance researcher, consultant and practical theologian. He works with churches, charities and community organisations and has recently completed a Professional Doctorate in Practical Theology at the University of Chester. www.

As Christians and churches involved in community mission, we sometimes find ourselves torn between competing priorities. We might feel torn, for example, between a desire to engage with our communities through acts of loving service and a conviction that we need to be proclaiming the gospel through words as well as actions. Or we might find ourselves torn between wanting to work in partnership with non-Christian organisations (like the Police or local community association) and wanting to emphasise our Christian distinctiveness.

How do we respond to such forces of tension when we find them at work in our hearts and minds or within our church communities? Do we bury our heads in the sand and ignore them? Do we choose to position ourselves on one particular side of the debate, surrounding ourselves with others who think the same? Do we try to sit on the fence?

Over the next few months, I’m going to be writing a series of blog posts reflecting on some of the tensions that churches involved in community mission experience. This will introduce some of the tensions highlighted by some recent research on Christian social action and offer some thoughts about a potential response. This isn’t going to be an attempt to provide answers or definitive models for resolving every tension that Christians and churches experience. (That would be impossible – we all need to find our own ways of responding to tensions that are particular to our situation and context). Instead, I will be offering some ideas and suggestions that I hope will be helpful in provoking further thinking and discussion.

In this series, we will be focusing particularly on the following six tensions:

  • Collaborative or Counter-cultural? (How should we relate to the world?)
  • Spiritual-evangelistic or Socio-economic? (What does community transformation look like?)
  • Neighbours or Super-heroes? (Who do we think we are?)
  • Applying my faith or Rethinking my faith? (How does community mission change us?)
  • Providing services or Being community? (What should the church be doing?)
  • Local or Global? (How wide are our horizons?) 

These six tensions were originally identified through my doctoral research with charismatic-evangelical urban churches. However, the feedback I’ve received from a variety of different audiences leads me to suggest that many of these tensions are not unique to charismatic-evangelical churches. They are experienced by Christians and churches from other theological traditions as well.

In each post, we will be looking at one of the six tensions – providing examples from the experience of local churches and thinking about how we might respond. Within all this, I’ll be trying to facilitate a response to tension which is faithful and creative, not destructive and divisive. I hope that it is helpful!


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